Overconsumption is the problem, not population

When we watch farmlands or forests being paved over for new housing, or see images of starving children, it’s hard not to think that there may be just too many people, that we have “exponential” population growth. This leads soon to the idea that we need to “do something” about population.

That view has a long history, including Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968) and Thomas Robert Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population. There may well be negative effects and ultimate limits, but most of the blame assigned to population today would be better assigned to overconsumption.

How we understand the causes of present problems such as climate change, depletion of natural resources, hunger, and war is important, because different causes call for different remedies. An article by Fred Pearce in New Scientist, via Population: Overconsumption is the real problem – opinion – 27 September 2009, summarizes well the major issues here.

The population “bomb” is fast being defused. Women across the poor world are having dramatically fewer babies than their mothers did – mostly out of choice, not compulsion. Half a century ago, the worldwide average for the number of children a woman had was between five and six. Now she has 2.6. In the face of such a fall it is hard to see what more “doing something” about global population might achieve.

Half the world now has a fertility rate below the replacement level, which, allowing for girls who don’t make it to adulthood, is around 2.3. This includes most of Europe, east Asia, North America and the Caribbean. There are holdouts in a few Muslim countries – but not Iran, where fertility is 1.7 – and many parts of Africa

Thus, even if we have too many people, the rate of growth is decreasing, and all the indicators point to further reductions accompanying development. So, if the problem is not exponential population growth, what is it? Pearce goes on to point out that

the world’s richest half billion people – that’s about 7 per cent of the global population – are responsible for 50 per cent of the world’s emissions. Meanwhile, the poorest 50 per cent are responsible for just 7 per cent of emissions. One American or European is more often than not responsible for more emissions than an entire village of Africans.

Every time those of us in the rich world talk about too many babies in Africa or India, we are denying our own culpability. It is the world’s consumption patterns we need to fix, not its reproductive habits.

Pearce talks mostly about climate change, but his argument holds for other aspects of environmental stress, including the basic issue of hunger. Overconsumption in the rich countries occurs through waste, a diet heavily based on meat, and simply too much eating. A study directed by Timothy Jones at the University of Arizona Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, indicates that up to fifty per cent of all food ready for harvest in the US never gets eaten. That amount alone is enough to address worldwide hunger needs.

There’s no doubt that we’d do better to balance our population with the available resources, but before we criticize the mote in the eye of starving villagers in Africa, we might well consider the beam in our own.


6 thoughts on “Overconsumption is the problem, not population

  1. I agree that overpopulation should be also addressed. But it’s still the case that the immediate problem is excessive consumption in the wealthy countries, and even wealthy states within the US, such as California. That point is supported by most of the data you shared.


  2. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

    “Unlike the plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases (which) we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess. What is lacking is not
    sufficient knowledge of the solution, but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and the education of the billions who are its victims.”
    Acceptance Speech: Margaret Sanger Award in Human Rights, 1966
    “The exponential rise in abundance of a single species to a position of global dominance is without known precedent in the history of the biosphere.”
    — United Nations Environment Program, World Atlas of Biodiversity, 2002
    Habitat conversion is involved in 80-90% of species extinctions.

    “Habitat loss due to population growth presents the single greatest problem facing native plants and animals in California.”
    –California Department of Fish and Game, Atlas of the Biodiversity of California, 2003.
    Between 2005 and 2050, 82% of projected U.S. growth will be a result of immigration.
    – Pew Research Center (July 2008)

    Between 2010 and 2050, 80% of projected U.S. growth will be a result of immigration.
    – U.S. Census Bureau (December 2009)
    “We believe that reducing current immigration levels is a necessary part of working toward sustainability in the United States. The Task Force calls on the immigration component of U.S. population growth to make a fair contribution to overall efforts to stabilize U.S. population as work progresses simultaneously to reduce fertility.”
    –President Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development Population and Consumption Task Force
    Energy – California ranks 48th of the 50 states in per capita energy use, but 2nd in total energy use. Our high total use is driven by our huge population.
    Two Recent Studies Relating Fertility to Greenhouse Gas Emissions:
    1. 2009 Oregon State University: Each child a U.S. mother gives birth to adds 5.7 times her lifetime greenhouse gas emissions.

    2. 2009 London School of Economics: Each $7 spent on basic family planning would reduce CO2 emissions by more than 1 metric ton. By comparison, a 1-tonne reduction using low-carbon technologies would cost a minimum of $32, fully $25 more per abated metric ton of CO2 than family planning.

    Overpopulation must be addressed.


  3. Pingback: Food for Thought: Roy Mankovitz «

  4. Nice article. You make some great points, and I appreciate the level-headed tone. But I think that the problems of population and consumption need to be considered in tandem; they are inextricably linked. If the whole world consumed at the level of the average American, halving global population still wouldn’t solve things. On the flip side, even if everyone on earth consumed at the level of the average Kenyan there will always be an overpopulation tipping point that makes continued growth unsustainable.

    The conversation should also include more than just levels of consumption. Population growth demands more buildings, more roads, more infrastructure. Even if we can feed everyone, a paved-over landscape is hardly desirable, or sustainable. An immediate and continual reduction in consumption (by those of us who overconsume) coupled with a slow and steady decrease in global population (brought about by education and choice, not political mandates) seems to me a much more effective strategy than either step on its own.


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